The biggest prep sports story in the month of March was tinged with tragedy, as a small town in Michigan lost one if its most talented sons. Yet, as the end of the month draws near, a more uplifting twist on a similar tale unfolded in Minnesota.
According to WDAY-6 News out of Fargo, N.D., Perham (Minn.) High basketball player Zach Gabbard made his first public appearance since collapsing on the court during his team's game against Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton in late January, arriving at the first state tournament game in Perham school history.
Gabbard rolled out onto the court in a wheelchair by his father, suited up in his school's black and yellow colors. He was wheeled around the court to open the team's warm-ups, with Perham taking a significant emotional lift into its quarterfinal game against Virginia (Minn.) High.
That lift helped lead the Yellow Jackets to a 57-40 victory and a spot in the state semifinals, and Gabbard's teammates made it clear that their teammate's surprise arrival -- he was given no better than a 50-50 chance of being physically able to show up before the morning of the game -- was a major factor in their success.
"I just can't even explain it," Perham guard Jordan Bruhn told WDAY. "We didn't know if he was going to be able to come. Coach said last night it would be 50-50, so he said for sure we would get a conference call, so we all go in there and we are all waiting. We were like this is going to be weird and I was like where is the camera and then coach said everyone turn around and there was Zach and it just meant a lot."
They shot like it meant a lot, too. The Yellow Jackets hit 62.5 percent of their field-goal attempts against Virginia, with a remarkable 54.5 percent of their shots from the 3-point line going in.
While the team still harbors state championship aspirations, Perham's first goal is to help Gabbard make a full recovery. The junior suffered a heart failure similar to the one that befell Fennville star Wes Leonard, but unlike Leonard Gabbard responded to immediate treatment at the scene and was successfully rushed to a nearby hospital for emergency heart surgery.
The teenager has remained in a hospital since, with his rehabilitation ongoing. Meanwhile, his teammates have paid him frequent visits and spearheaded a massive fundraising campaign -- focused on popular T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "One Clap for Zach" -- that has raised nearly $100,000 to help defray medical costs for the Gabbard family.
The town's efforts also included an inspirational outdoor prayer session, held in minus-23 degree weather where hundreds lit candles at a makeshift memorial for the basketball star.
Now, with the team and Gabbard improving at a similar rate, few will be betting against Perham continuing its state tournament run in the semifinals on Friday.
"It is just unbelievable," Gabbard's teammate Jordan Cresap told WDAY. "Emotions are definitely running high. We just want to go out there and perform for him because he is working hard each and everyday to get better himself and we just thought we would return the favor."